Terminator Seeds Threaten an End to Farming

by Hope Shand and Pat Mooney

Earth Island Journal, Fall, 1998


The 12,000-year-old practice in which farm families save their best seed from one year's harvest for the next season's planting may be coming to an end by the year 2000. In March 1998, Delta ~ Pine Land Co. arid the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced they had received a US patent on a new genetic technology designed to prevent unauthorized seed-saving by farmers.

The patented technology enables a seed company to genetically alter seed so that the plants that grow from it are sterile; farmers cannot use their seeds. The patent is broad applying to plants and seeds of all species including both transgenic (genetically engineered) and conventionally-bred seeds. The developers of the new technology say that their technique to prevent seed-saving is still in the product development stage, and is now being tested on cotton and tobacco. They hope to have a product on the market sometime after the year 2000.

Over the last four years, USDA researchers claim to have spent nearly $190,000 to support research on what the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) calls "Terminator" seed technology. Delta & Pine Land, the seed industry collaborator, devoted $275,000 of in-house expenses and contributed an additional $255,000 to the joint research. According to a USDA spokesperson, Delta & Pine Land Co. has the option to exclusively license the jointly developed patented technology.

The USDA's Willard Phelps explained that the goal is "to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in second and third world countries."

USDA molecular biologist Melvin J. Oliver, the primary inventor of the technology, explained why the US developed a technology that prohibits farmers from saving seeds: "Our mission is to protect US agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting the patented seed technology."

USDA stands to earn royalties of about 5 percent of the net sales if a product is commercialized. The day after the. patent was announced, Delta & Pine Land Company's stock rose sharply. While USDA and seed industry profits may increase, these earnings come at enormous cost to farmers and to global food security. ~

USDA researchers interviewed by the authors expressed a strong allegiance to the commercial seed industry and an appalling lack of awareness about this technology's potential effects, especially in the US South.

Impact In the South

Delta &r Pine Land Co.'s press release claims that its new technology has " the prospect of opening significant worldwide seed markets to the sale of transgenic technology for crops in which seed currently is saved and used in subsequent plantings."

Up to 1.4 billion resource-poor farmers in the South depend on farm-saved seed and

seeds exchanged with neighbors as their primary seed source. A technology that restricts farmer expertise in selecting seed and developing locally-adapted strains is a threat to food security and agricultural biodiversity, especially for the poor. The threat is real, especially considering that USDA and Delta &r Pine Land have applied for patent protection in countries from Brazil to Vietnam.

If the Terminator technology is widely licensed, it could mean that the commercial seed industry will enter entirely new sectors of the seed market - especially in self-pollinating seeds such as wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, oats and sorghum. Historically, there has been little commercial interest in non-hybridized seeds such as wheat and rice because there was no way for seed companies to control reproduction. With the patent announcement, the world's two most critical food crops - rice and wheat, staple crops for three-quarters of the world's poor - potentially enter the realm of private monopoly.

In May, Monsanto announced it would acquire Delta &r Pine Land Company for $1.8 billion. This means that seed-sterilizing technology is now in the hands of the world's third-largest seed corporation and second largest agrochemical corporation.

Monsanto's 1996 revenues were $9.26 billion. The company's genetically engineered crops are expected to be used on approximately 50 million acres worldwide in 1998.

If Monsanto's new technology provides a genetic mechanism to prevent farmers from germinating a second generation of seed, then seed companies will gain the biological control over seeds that they have heretofore lacked in non-hybrid crops.

Nobody knows exactly how many farmers in industrialized countries save seed from their harvest each year. By some estimates, 20 to 30 percent of all soybean fields in the US midwest are planted with farmer-saved seed. Most North American wheat farmers rely on farm-saved seeds and return to the commercial market once every four or five years. Almost all of the wheat grown on the Canadian prairies is from seed produced in the communities in which it is grown. The same is true for lentils and peas.

More Options for Farmers?

Proponents of the Terminator technology are quick to point out that farmers will not buy seed that does not bring them benefits. But market choices must be examined in the context of privatization of plant breeding and rapid consolidation in the global seed industry. The top ten seed corporations control approximately 40 percent of the commercial seed market. Current trends in seed industry consolidation, coupled with rapid declines in public sector breeding, mean that farmers are increasingly vulnerable and have far fewer options in the marketplace.

A new technology that is designed to give the seed industry greater control over seeds will ultimately weaken the role. of public breeders and reinforce corporate consolidation in the global seed industry.

Advocates of Terminator technology claim that it will be a boon to food production in the South, because seed companies will have an incentive to invest in crops that have long been ignored by the commercial seed industry. But private companies are not interested in developing plant varieties for poor farmers because they know the farmers can't pay. Existing national public breeding programs tend to focus on seeds for high-yielding, irrigated lands, leaving resource-poor farmers to fend for themselves.

Half the world's farmers. are poor and can't afford to buy seed every season, yet poor farmers grow 15-20 percent of the world's food and directly feed at least 1.4 billion people - 100 million in Latin America, 300 million in Africa, and one billion in Asia. These farmers depend upon saved seed and their own breeding skills in adapting other varieties for use on their often-marginal lands.

Biosafety Concerns

The seed industry is expected to defend the Terminator technology by arguing that it will increase the safety of using genetically-engineered crops. Since the seed carries the sterility trait, say proponents, it is less likely that transgenic material will escape from one crop into related species and wild crop relatives. The seed industry is expected to argue that this built-in safety feature will speed up biotech advances in agriculture and increase productivity.

Molecular biologists who have studied the patent have mixed views on the potential ecological hazards of the sterility trait. The greatest fear is that the sterility trait from first generation seed might spread via pollen to neighboring crops or wild relatives growing nearby. Some biologists argue that pollen even if pollen does escape, it would not pose a threat. The danger is that neighboring crops could be rendered "sterile" due to cross pollination - wreaking havoc on the surrounding ecosystem. Given that the technology is new and untested on a large scale, biosafety issues remain an important concern.

Reactions to the Terminator

"This is a patent that is too profitable for companies to ignore," says Camila Montecinos of the Chilean-based Center for Education and Technology. "We will see pressure on national regulatory systems to marginalize saved-seed varieties and clear the way for the Terminator. More than a billion farm families are at risk."

"Governments should declare use of the technology illegal," she insists. "This is an immoral technique that robs farming communities of their age-old right to save seed, and their role as plant breeders."

To this, corporate breeders respond that the new technology simply does for hard-to-hybridize crops what the hybrid technique did for maize. Hybrid seed is either sterile or fails to reproduce the same-quality characteristics in the next generation. Thus, most maize farmers buy seed every year.

"Poor farmers can't afford hybrids either," Montecinos points out, "but there's a key difference. The theory behind hybridization is that it allows breeders to make crosses that couldn't be made otherwise and that are supposed to give the plant higher yields and vigor. The results are often disappointing, but that's the rationale. In the case of Terminator technology, there's absolutely no agronomic benefit for farmers. The sole purpose is to facilitate monopoly control, and the sole beneficiary is agribusiness."

Neth Dano of the civil organization SEARICE, based in The Philippines, sees a threat to the environment and to long-term food security: "We work with farmers who may buy a commercial variety, but its breeder wouldn't recognize it five years later. Women select the best seeds every year, and, over time, the rice molds itself to the farm's ecosystem. Women also cross the commercial variety with other rice strains to breed their own locally-adapted seeds. The Terminator could put an end to all this and increase crop uniformity and vulnerability. It poses a threat to the culture of seed-sharing and exchange that is led primarily by women farmers."

Terminate the Terminator

At the fourth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, May 4-15, 1998, the Philippine resolution calling for a ban on the technology was supported by delegates from Kenya, Zambia, Pakistan, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. When it was announced on May 12th that the Delta & Pine Land Co. had been acquired by Monsanto, concerns were heightened about the potential dangers of this technology for farmers and food security. The COP has requested that the issue be considered by its Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSITA).

A genetic technology aiming to sterilize seed threatens to extinguish the right of farmers to save seed and breed new crop varieties, and threatens the food security of 1.4 billion people. RAFI and other nongovernmental organizations are calling for a global ban on the use of Terminator seeds. Both the patent and the technology should be rejected on the basis of common sense, food security and agricultural biodiversity.


Hope Shand, Research Director of RAFWSA and Pat Mooney, Executive Director of RAFI Canada. PO Box 640, Pittsboro, North Carolina 27312; (919) 542-1396, fax (919) 5420069; rafiusa@rafi.org, www.rafi.ca

Transnational Corporations & the Third World